American Culture

Back in time, along the Loxahatchee, lived a giant of a man

by Chip Ainsworth

Boat captain Scott Alvarez guided the 40-foot pontoon over the brackish waters of the Loxahatchee River and away from Trapper Nelson’s campground, the twin outboards aided by the pull of an outgoing tide.

Alvarez was born and raised in Florida when “there was only one stoplight in Delray Beach” and today gives guided tour rides to Nelson’s campground in Jonathon Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound. The restored site was inhabited from the early 1930s until the late 1960s. Nelson came to Florida from Trenton, N.J., to trap, hunt and fish. For him it wasn’t a journey into Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but the siren call of nature away from civilization.

During our journey, Alvarez described the various types of plant and wildlife along the shore. He pointed to osprey nests so durable they’ve survived multiple hurricanes and to mangrove trees that act as a filter for sea life and protect coastlines from ocean surges during hurricanes. They are ecologically precious and protected by state and municipal laws. Last year a Florida couple was fined $1.6 million for removing 109 trees from the shore of their home in Jupiter.

Alavarez cruised along past schools of mullet, pointed to a lone manatee lolling near the surface and alligators sunning on the muddy banks. He navigated near yellow-bellied slider turtles piggybacked four to a log and white ibis and great blue herons plucking fish, frogs and insects into their outsized bills.

He shrugged when I mentioned the hazards for Nelson to be living alone amidst alligators and poisonous snakes. “People are more dangerous,” he said as he gazed through thickets of slash pine, ash, and century-old cypress trees. “Sometimes I look out there and can see a Seminole. This is the Old Florida.”

It’s also where Vincent Natulkiewicz, aka Vince Nelson, aka Trapper Nelson called home. He arrived via the Hobo Express and built his cabin seven miles upstream from the Jupiter Inlet. His campsite became popular with boaters, and eventually he transformed his squatter’s claim into what was arguably Florida’s first theme park— “Trapper Nelson’s Zoo and Jungle Garden.”

At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Nelson had the good looks and rugged physical frame to become a Tarzan-like “Wild Man of the Loxahatchee.” He greeted visitors with a large black indigo snake draped around his neck and his wildlife displays included a rattlesnake pit, alligator den and wire cages that housed bobcats, raccoons and other critters.

In his book Life & Death on the Loxahatchee: The Story of Trapper Nelson, author James D. Snyder wrote that Nelson sold hides of otter, bobcat and rattlesnake, orchids, post cards and sugar cane. A hand-lettered sign at the restored campsite reveals he offered rowboat rentals for $1.50 a day.

He also sold baby alligators, which reminded me of the time in my Old Deerfield, Mass., grammar school when my friend Mark Enoch asked his schoolmate Dick Wilby to send him an alligator from Florida. Wilby complied, and we were captivated by the foot-long creature floating in the bathtub of Mark’s house on the north end of Main Street.

“Is it dead?” I asked, giving the scaly beast a poke. It whirled around and nearly bit off my finger. Not long afterward, Mark’s mother told us she’d found it a home.

Nelson was surely never scared of alligators, regardless of size. Snyder writes of a woman who was visiting Trapper’s camp as a young girl “when he spotted a large alligator cruising by his dock. Without a word Nelson plunged into the river and rode the gator bareback until it finally wriggled free.”

Eventually Nelson closed his zoo and isolated himself from encroaching civilization. He posted no trespassing signs and warned people off with a shotgun. He’d acquired vast amounts of land but was leery of real estate agents who wanted to buy the property. He’d been through an expensive and short-lived marriage, and he had become a hypochondriac, fearful of cancer.

In the summer of 1968, a longtime friend of Nelson’s found him dead near his chickee hut. He was 59. “There was Trapper’s body, sprawled in the sand, face down,” wrote Nelson. “His 12-gauge shotgun lay on the sand a few feet away. One shell was discharged. (It) had apparently entered the chest and traveled upward through the back of the head.”

Some speculated he’d been murdered but the coroner’s jury ruled it a suicide. Park ranger Chris Camargo thinks that Nelson’s death was accidental. “The shotgun had a hair trigger that could easily have discharged,” said Camargo, who greeted us at Nelson’s dock and gave a 30-minute tour. What we were seeing, he said, was “80 to 90 percent” what it looked like during Nelson’s tenancy.

Nelson was no mere hermit living in a lean-to. His craftsmanship was innovative, hard wrought and enduring. His two cabins survived several hurricanes—he even kept a hurricane scoreboard– and he’d constructed a water tower over a hand-dug well that provided enough pressure to sustain two bathrooms and an irrigation system.

To enhance his property’s image as a jungle garden, Nelson had planted bamboo plants along the shoreline and mango and pineapple trees, the latter his favorite fruit. Inside his cabin was a propane-powered refrigerator. The skull of a 13-foot alligator hung on one wall; bobcat, rabbit and raccoon pelts on another.

Chameleons and other lizards darted in and out of a large woodpile that fed the fireplace. “He cut a cord every day,” said Camargo. “He read The Wall Street Journal and acquired 800 acres of land, mostly by paying others’ delinquent taxes.”

After our visit we passed more alligators basking in the mid-morning sun. Threatening as they appear, the last alligator attack that resulted in death was in November 2007, when a man fleeing Miami police jumped into a retaining pond and was dragged underwater by a 10-foot alligator. “One way to get bitten is to come between a mother and its baby gator. They are extremely protective,” said Alvarez.

By the time we docked another group was waiting to board. For those who ever get down here from Massachusetts’ Franklin County, J.D. Park is located off U.S. Route 1 between Jupiter and Stuart. Inside the park is a paved, four-mile road that goes over railroad tracks and signs warning, “Feeding, enticing or molesting alligators is prohibited.”

The dock is at the end of the road, past a picnic area and next to the gift shop. The Loxahatchee Queen II leaves four times a day and cost $20, not including the $6 park entrance fee (per car) and the voluntary tip to the boat’s captain.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning New England sports and travel writer.

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